Continental Airlines (NYSE:CAL) announced last week a surprise $100 million profit in its second-quarter earnings release. Subtracting a $47 million gain from the addition of ExpressJet's (NYSE:XJT) shares to its pension scheme, net income was a still-solid $53 million or $0.69 a share -- more than tripling analysts' estimates of $0.20.

The main drivers for this outstanding performance were a $418 million reduction in annualized labor costs and significant revenue increases, which resulted in part from the company's continued success in international expansion. The airline reported a 26% year-over-year increase in trans-Atlantic revenue, as well as a 21% increase in Pacific revenue.

Continental's share price is now up by more than 30% since I first suggested back in April that it might be a value play. The stock still seems quite cheap to me, since additional profit drivers such as increased first-class seats are raising the company's intrinsic value.

The airline industry's fortunes are also improving. Delta's (NYSE:DAL) recent increase in fare prices on walk-up and three-day-advance-notice fares gives the industry a bit more breathing room in an environment of high fuel costs and intense fare competition. One analyst estimated that Delta's move will add $300 million in overall industry revenues annually.

While the profit margin on the extra $300 million may be disappointing, the increased revenue will certainly help offset rising fuel costs now that oil is approximately $60 a barrel. Alas, since only 6% of passengers buy walk-up or three-day-advance-notice fares, this increase may have only a minor positive impact in the long term.

Continental also reported that it plans on doubling the amount of first-class seats available for sale as a result of increased demand and the addition of 13 new Boeing jets, which will be added to the existing fleet in the second half of 2005. These are just a couple of the positive moves by a company that is already executing extremely well in a very tough market.

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Stephen Ellis welcomes your comments at steve819@gmail.com. He owns stock in CAL. The Motley Fool has an ironclad disclosure policy.